Three of the most dreaded words in the English language are “financial aid application.” Parents hate it. Students fear it. And administrators try not to be overwhelmed by all the documentation associated with it.
At Liberty University (Va.), where approximately 97 percent of its 72,200 students receive some form of financial aid, basic calls were formerly outsourced to an independent call center. The goal of outsourcing such calls was to provide quick answers to easy-to-answer financial aid-related questions, thereby freeing financial aid staff members to concentrate on the more time-consuming queries. Complex calls specific to a particular student’s situation, or related to issues such as eligibility when a family experiences unemployment, loan eligibility, and tax documentation, are transferred to a financial aid officer for further investigation.
About four years ago, Liberty officials determined that the process needed improvements. Enrollment was growing by more than 20 percent per year, with the number of financial aid phone calls rising in tandem. The time required to research and answer the more involved questions was also lengthening. Given the increasing workload and demands on his team, then newly-hired Executive Director of Financial Aid Robert Ritz grew concerned about turnaround times and ensuring no student fell through the cracks.
To address the need for workflow tracking, and to speed up the financial aid process as a whole, Liberty’s financial aid office began implementing Microsoft SharePoint (already owned by the university); SCT Banner, an ERP system; and ARGOS, for customized work reports. To supplement the new technology, the previously outsourced call center was also brought in-house, into the financial aid office, to facilitate faster hand-off of complex questions to staff members. On a typical day, 2,000 phone calls are answered by a staff of 30; to put it in perspective, Liberty’s is one of the top 15 largest financial aid offices in the country.
It used to take the financial aid office four to six weeks to verify financial aid information from students and make a financial aid decision. Today, with electronic documents and a streamlined workflow process, that process takes just eight hours?a single workday. Getting an answer to a financial aid question is also much faster. “Depending on the type of question, 24 to 48 hours is the maximum time allowed for an answer,” says Ritz. SharePoint tracks where in the system a particular question is, warning when an answer is overdue. Financial aid staff receive an e-mail warning if a question has not yet been answered, prompting immediate attention.
Students still submit paper financial aid documentation, but financial aid staff then scans them and destroys the originals six weeks later. The goal is to be paperless in the very near future, and the office is moving toward converting students to the paperless process. Once that goal is achieved, six to seven more steps could be eliminated from the financial aid process, says Ritz, further compressing and streamlining Liberty’s award-winning approach. -M.L.T.